Playing The Cutscene in Mass Effect

SPOILER AHEAD-

When players can convince the final boss of a game to blow his own Turian brains out by manipulating the dialogue mechanic of the game, players are not only playing the cut scene; they are winning it, and winning feels good. Mass Effect’s dialogue selection mechanic is an innovative way to simultaneously deliver game play and story with minimal sacrifice to either. ***In general, game play suffers  from the need to have cut scenes at all, but overall, games benefit from having a great story. Generally speaking, when game play has grown stale, the story can incite players to finish a game that is no longer fun to play (See my post on immersion). This is somewhat true in the case of Mass Effect, but the game play never really became stale for me, although it is somewhat repetitive, but I digress***

So, although cut scenes hinder game play, the game benefits over all. In Mass Effect, Bioware was able to minimize the interruption of game play by making the dialogue cut scenes playable. Yes, this has been done before in numerous game (KOTOR, Baldur’s Gate, etc), but none have ever been this successful, in my opinion.

Allow me to break down why I think the dialogue selection mechanic is by far the most successful up to date.

It keeps you awake: this one is pretty basic, but the fact that players have some agency in the cut scenes makes the longer sections of dialogue easier to pay attention to simply because the player chooses how they want to respond. Moreover, the options capture the gist of what Commander Shepard is going to say without forcing you to read it word-for-word, choose it, and then hear Shepard say it word-for-word. Instead, Shepard’s spoken lines are substantially different from the options, and this keeps dialogue interesting. The fact that most of the writing is really well done works in tandem with this aspect of the game to achieve 3 things: entertainment, exposition, and (limited) agency. If you’re playing a renegade Commander Shepard, the dialogue is going to be really interesting because this version of the character is a xenophobic, elitist, violent douchebag, and his lines are pretty saucy.

Choose what you want to know: There’s a ton of depth to this game, and if players more inclined to play a sports game were forced-fed this galaxy’s worth of information, they would hate it for sure. What the game does instead is disperse its depth and make it optional, so not only do you get to choose what you’re character says, you get to choose the information you want to know, to a large extent. What’s really great about this is that the information is presented enticingly. During dialogue, and NPC can allude to some aspect of the game’s back story, and players have the option to inquire further, or just continue to move the conversation forward. The way that extra content is presented compels those that are curious to inquire further, and if a player finds that it’s boring, they have only themselves to blame. However, the content is hardly ever boring. Most of the time it’s really interesting, and this again points back to the awesome writing that was done for the game.

Reader, can you imagine these cut scenes without dialogue options? that would be dreadfully boring. I wouldn’t have made it past the citadel.

Bow-chicka-wow-winning: So the relationship aspect of this game works somewhat like a dating simulation, and it’s pretty fun. The romantic interests are all fairly appealing, and interacting with them through the dialogue mechanic becomes an added challenge to the game. Personally, I think Ashley’s character is really well done because she’s a tease, but she’s also somewhat reserved. She keeps the player guessing, so when she actually gives Shepard a sign that the relationship is moving in the right direction, it feels like you’re winning. I say feel because it’s actually really easy to manipulate the relationships, and the player ultimately hooks up with somebody, unless they completely mess up, so players are not actually winning, but it sure does make them feel cool. And when the romance finally comes to a climax, that really feels like winning.

Perfectly good at being bad: One critique of the dialogue mechanic is that it’s too easy to recognize the good, neutral, or bad options, and therefore the game doesn’t force you to interrogate these options and consider their possible outcomes. I think this criticism makes a point, but ultimately fails because the options only give players a gist of what Shepard will say, so if they don’t know which response is the paragon (good) response, then they’re gambling/ hoping that Shepard will say what they want. Moreover, in “real” life, it’s not that hard to recognize good, neutral, or bad decisions. Of course, there are always uncertainties, but if you have a sense of right and wrong, then its usually not that difficult. So, I don’t see why we would want the game to make these options more obscure.

What Mass Effect does really well in terms of Paragon-Renegade options is that it makes the renegade options range from really tempting to really regrettable. For example, in Eden Prime, when Shepard encounters the loony Dr. Manuel, it’s really tempting to clean his clock (beat him up). I had chosen to play a paragon Shepard, and this option was clearly renegade, but I couldn’t resist. It was wrong, but it felt so right. The game does this a number of times, especially when you’re dealing with the council, but sometimes Shepard’s renegade lines are so messed up that I would instantly regret being tempted by the dark side. So, although the options are simple to recognize, the situations that the game places you in incite you to make a choice that goes against your chosen play style. For these reasons, I see the simplicity of the options as a strong point of the dialogue mechanic.

THE REALLY GOOD STUFF in case you’ve skimmed down…

Your options affect game play big time:

Mostly, the dialogue options affect the way the story plays out, but in some cases, it has a direct impact on game play, and this is my favorite aspect of the dialogue mechanic. The first instance of this occurs on Eden Prime. When I encountered some farmers hiding from the geth, I had the option of taking their story at face value, or interrogating them a bit. In reality, they were weapon smugglers, and this dialogue ultimately allowed me to use one of the charm options.

***(Side note) Commander Shepard has two skills that impact the dialogue scenes: Charm and Intimidate. Developing either of these skills allows you to choose exclusive dialogue options. Charm options are in a blue font, and intimidate options are in red. Being able to select these options also nets the player major paragon or renegade points. I focused on charm, and every time those blue options would pop-up, it felt like winning.***

So if the player charms or intimidates the smugglers, they’ll give Shepard a sweet pistol that’s much better than any of the ones available now or in the next few worlds. This weapon significantly affects game play because I felt like a bad-ass when I was taking down geth in one or two shots. I felt like I played and won that particular cut scene, and the feeling of winning carried over into every kill I had with that gun (exaggeration, but w/e). It’s worth mentioning that there are two occasions when the lives of certain party members depend entirely on how the player manipulates the dialogue mechanic, and while these scenes were pretty cool, the choices are imposed on the player and this limits the sensation of agency.

There are a few more examples like the one about the gun, but I’ll skip to the most dramatic one. HUGE SPOILER WARNING.

——————————————–

When you finally catch up to Saren, the rogue specter you’ve been chasing across 4-5 worlds, you can actually charm him into killing himself through the dialogue mechanic of the game. This, in my opinion, is far more satisfying than actually fighting him. From early on in the game, the goal has been to find out what Saren is up to and put and end to it. Turns out that he’s a formidable rogue specter/ cyborg turian/ traitor who’s bent on helping a race of sentient machines wipe out all civilized species in the galaxy, and commander Shepard talks him into killing himself. Did I feel like I won that cut scene? Hell yes. I felt like that was the best and most interesting possible outcome for that interaction, and I achieved it through manipulation of the dialogue mechanic. I exerted my agency as a player and achieved desirable, surprising, and dramatic result. # Winning. ( I charmed Saren, but the player in this video uses intimidation).

(Also, you have to fight Saren’s body after Sovereign possesses it, but w.e.)

The point is that…the delivery of narrative exposition in games has been a stumbling block for game designers who want provide both immersive game play and a gripping story, but through innovative approaches such as Mass Effect’s dialogue mechanic, game designers provide players an integrated game-play and narrative experience. Although it seems simple on the surface, the creators of Mass Effect were able to overcome issues traditionally associated with dialogue cut scenes while enhancing the overall gaming experience in unexpected ways. This kind of innovative thinking shows the potential for even better integration of game-play and narrative in the future of video games.

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9 Responses to Playing The Cutscene in Mass Effect

  1. Alphabet1 says:

    Comment please =] (forever alone).

  2. My mom would totally beat your mom in Bomberman says:

    No one currently in the business handles dialogue, plot, and character development better than BioWare. Mass Effect wasn’t the first to do this as you’ve mentioned, but it definitely raised the bar and perfected the Western RPG format–that is, until Mass Effect 2 shattered all expectations and raised it even higher (arguably to the point that Dragon Age 2 disappointed players, but I digress).

    I really think you owe it to yourself to try and play Dragon Age: Origins. Mass Effect, though evocative as it was, really pales in comparison to the dialogue options and decisions made in Origins. That game made its mark in ways that Mass Effect couldn’t, and it really helps frame in my mind just how amazing of a studio BioWare really is. DA2 I would approach carefully, but between ME2 and DA:O you’ve got enough on your plate.

  3. Worcester Uni Student says:

    Roland Barthes once said that the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author, a phrase I’m sure you’re familiar with, Referring to our ever expanding capacity to infuse texts with our own meanings and significations.

    With the digital revolution behind us we now have the ability to create our own texts, craft our own narratives, choose what we read. The actualization of Barthes theory some would argue. No longer are we bound by authorial power.

    With this in mind, do you believe that games should be driven by narrative (Mario, Zelda), or allow you to make your own decisions (The Sims, GTA, Mass Effect)?

    Also, I don’t know if you’ve played Little Big Planet, but what do you think that offers in terms of narrative structure, as I would argue that it presents a halfway point between Authorial Control and Player Control..

    • Alphabet1 says:

      It certainly seems like a more explicit realization of Barthes’ concept since members of the audience no longer take a passive role in the consumption of media, but there are some distinctions to be made because Barthes was referring to the way that multiple possible interpretations due to the lack of fully present meaning in any text does away with the metaphysical concepts of origin, voice, and authorial intention. In my opinion, we were only ever bound by authorial power if we believed in the metaphysical ideologies I just mentioned.

      What we are seeing in video games goes beyond interpretation (and beyond what Barthes was discussing) because we can literally or actually edit our texts within certain possibility spaces (by edit I mean play and by possibility space I mean the amount of freedom a game allows players during game play). We become in many ways producers of the entertainment we consume. Some scholars have posited the term “conducers” (producer/ consumer) as a way to describe the role of the audience of interactive media.

      Essentially, Barthes’ concepts and our present role as “conducers” are related but separate concepts. However, somewhere between production and consumption, we ultimately come to interpret the entertainment we create, and we are once again reduced to readers, and this is where Barthes’ concepts tie back into the experience of game play; when we interpret our in game experience, we are not bound by authorial control, even if we as “conducers” are in some ways the authors.

      Basically, I conceptualize our roles as conducers/players as too literal to fit into Barthes’ concept of the death of the author, but our role as interpreters of our own game play definitely fits into what Barthes refers to. Even though the role of player and interpreter occur simultaneously, I feel like it’s a useful distinction to make.

      With that in mind, and in my humble opinion, I do think that narrative driven games can benefit from integrating game play and narrative exposition a la Mass Effect, but perhaps it’s too soon to say that all games should use mechanics that allow players to manipulate the story. I think games with traditional narratives can still be successful and fun, and there’s definitely room for both types. Moreover, when we consider games that have no narrative to speak of, or worth speaking of(Tetris / Super Meatboy), it becomes apparent that blanket statements about how games should work are counter-productive. I think the best we can do is analyze games individually and judge what mechanics suit a particular game best.

      Going back to Barthes, even if a game is driven by a literal narrative, or by a hybrid of narrative and game play (narratives with choices that alter the story), or by pure game play, players ultimately interpret and infuse their game play with meaning, whether there’s a story or not.

  4. Serpentine says:

    The cutscene mechanics remind me a lot of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriot. THe cutscenes in that game were not only quite long, but also marginally interactive. All in all, while being a good game, it did capitalize on the story events told through cutscenes. I believe if it did take Mass Effect’s route, it would have made for a far more enthralling game. While I haven’t played Mass Effect, this has put it at the top of my list.

  5. Nick Dinicola says:

    It’s interesting that you bring up “wining” the conversations. It reminds me of an article (http://www.destructoid.com/you-can-always-get-what-you-want-mass-effect-and-wish-fulfillment-55764.phtml) on Destructoid from a while ago where the writer asked: “should games like Mass Effect work solely as wish fulfillment, or as dramatically potent (but not necessarily happy and enjoyable) stories?” I think Mass Effect does the former, and Dragon Age does the latter.

    I really love the whole dialogue wheel. Functionally, it’s no different than what other games have done, but I think streamlining the system to show only the gist of a response makes a voiced character more attractive (No player would like it if we had to hear our character repeat the same lines we just read) and I think having a voice allows for better characterization. Personally, I don’t see Shepard has a “blank slate” but rather as a piece of clay: I’m not creating his character from scratch, instead he’s a fully formed character that I’m just molding into my own creation.

    That said, I don’t like Mass Effect’s focus on the paragon/renegade dichotomy. Especially the fact that some conflicts later in the game can only be solved one way if you have X number of points in either trait. It seems to encourage players to “specialize” in one side or the other, so my response to a given situation might not be my honest response. I imagine you have to have a lot of paragon/renegade points to convince Saren to kill himself.

    I think the climatic conversation with Wrex is one of most memorable moments in the game because there are many ways it can play out that don’t rely on Charm or Intimidate (though those are options). So it’s not just a matter of how many points I have in a given trait, but a culmination of the actions I’ve taken up to that point: Did I talk to Ashley beforehand, did I do Wrex’s sidequest, etc.

    But then I’m able to nitpick like this because BioWare has used the wheel in three games now, so they’ve had time to play around with it. And even if they never change it I still think it’s better than any alternative. It’s certainly better than a plain old cut scene.

    • Alphabet1 says:

      I love the clay analogy, Nick, and thanks for taking the time to check out my blog =]

      I would say that Mass Effect’s dialogue mechanic is both wish fulfillment and dramatically potent, sometimes one more than the other. I agree that the P/R dichotomy is kind of lame. I wish the charm and intimidate skills could be developed regardless of how you act in the game; However, in Mass Effect 1, you can develop both charm and renegade, but I’m sure that would hinder the development of your character’s core stats.

      In Mass Effect 2, you can’t allocate points as you see fit; it’s done automatically according to your past actions, which encourages the “specialization,” or one-dimensionality, of Commander Shepard.

      Referring specifically to the life/death interaction with Wrex, the one thing that makes letting Wrex live both wish fulfillment/ powerful storytelling is the fact that paragon Shepard’s reasoning is spot on. Shepard’s “charming” argument is that Saren’s Krogan are being used like a tool. Their existence is not their own, and they are not better off than Sovereigns’ indoctrinated pawns; a pitiful life that’s particularly offensive the sensibilities of a proud Krogan battlemaster. What impressed me about this line was that I hadn’t thought of it. If it was me in Shepard’s shoes, I would fail to prevent Wrex’s death, but Paragon Shepard, with his superior moral compass, is able to see the full implications of Saren’s genophage-free Krogan =]

  6. Thanks for this essay. You raise interesting points about the ludic dimension of dialogue trees and our inevitable desire to “play” with anything that lets us test outcomes. I think we’re tempted to conclude that this process diminishes complex storytelling and invites players to produce relatively simple what-if situations with less interpretive investment and no real regard for meaning. It’s more like playfully rearranging the pages of a picture book than carefully reading and deliberating on the words in a novel.

    When I find myself holding this point of view (and I have to confess Mass Effect’s characters and core story compelled me more than my “choices” ever did), I remember that games aren’t novels – duh, right? – and that we’re really talking about a different kind of meaningful interaction between player and game unique to the medium. We’re so attracted to “better” and “worse” comparisons, but sometimes we must acknowledge that “different” is the more useful distinction.

    Your essay reminds me that delivering narrative exposition is never easy in any medium, so clever artists must figure out how to do it in ways that don’t feel like we’re being delivered narrative exposition. 🙂

    • Alphabet1 says:

      Yay! thanks for taking the time to read this, Michael. Your comment made my day =]. “different” is definitely a useful distinction, and I would add that we can improve or worsen different, or do “different” differently. Any comparison to other media must be done with this in mind <3.

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